Is Michelle Obama packing the White House with socialist literature? No way!

A blogger on a tour jumped to some wrong conclusions about the contents of the White House library.

Jay Tamboli's Flickr page
Who picks the books in the White House library? This photo of one of the bookshelves on display there dates from 2008.

On a trip to Washington, conservative talk show host and blogger Rob Port took a tour of the White House, and while there he saw something that he found alarming. On a shelf in the White House library he spied two books titled "The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912" and "The Socialist Party of America."

Port asked the tour guide who stocked the White House library and heard – or thought he heard – that it was the job of the first lady. So, once back home in North Dakota, he posted a photo of the books with a blog titled: "Photo Evidence: Michelle Obama Keeps Socialist Books in the White House Library."

"By itself, [the placement of the books in the library] wouldn’t be that big of a deal," Port admitted. "But in the context of Anita Dunn saying Chairman Mao is her favorite political philosopher? In the context of the Mao ornament on the White House Christmas tree? In the context of Obama’s economic policies? Well, I’ll let you make your own call."

The blog speedily picked up comments and links and looked to be on its way to creating a small firestorm before The Washington Post stepped in. "The only problem is the books Port photographed have been sitting in the library since 1963," the Post reported. "The library came into being during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy asked Yale University librarian James T. Babb to oversee a committee that would select books for the library. In 1963, 1,780 were placed on the shelves."

Among those 1,780 books selected in 1963 were the two socialist titles that drew Port's attention. Apparently they have been sitting quietly on the White House shelves for several decades now, including throughout the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

(Port has since updated his blog to include The Washington Post's report. He says that he and the White House guide may have misunderstood each another on the question of which first lady made the library book selections.)

Meanwhile, Daily Intel, eager to join in on the fun, posted a 2008 Flickr photo of a shelf in the White House library that included a copy of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," declaring that, "The Obamas are socialists and militant black nationalists," and then deadpanning, "Oh, wait a second – that photo was taken on December 18, 2008, before the Obamas moved into the White House. So, George W. Bush was a militant black nationalist? We're confused now."

We should probably all feel confused. Although perhaps the most surprising thing about this story is the fact that it took so long for these books – along with a handful of other titles on socialism and communism that are also part of the White House collection – to attract attention. Babb told The New York Times in 1963 that there was "bound to be criticism" of his choices.

"There will still be people telling us what should be in this library, but we'll just have to be adamant," Babb said at the time. He probably couldn't have guessed, however, that 40-some years later his critics would still have the power to make headlines.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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